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‘West Side Story’ Review: Musical shines under Spielberg’s masterful direction


Brent Leuthold

Whatzup Features Writer

Published December 15, 2021

It’s been 60 years since Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise brought their vision of the stage musical West Side Story to the big screen, and few films of the genre have captured the hearts and minds of audiences more since its release.

It would take an audacious filmmaker to adapt the renowned 1957 Broadway show once again, but when it comes to moviemaking, Steven Spielberg has rarely backed down from a challenge during his 50 years in the industry. This turns out to be an expert calculation, resulting in not just the most electric musical event of the year but the most vital work of Spielberg’s career since Lincoln almost 10 years ago.

Taking place in the Upper West Side of the mid-1950s, the Romeo and Juliet-influenced story finds young love in the crossfire between two rival gangs of teenagers. The all-white Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), lock horns with the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), over control of their changing neighborhood. Riff looks to recruit the fresh-out-of-jail Tony (Ansel Elgort) for the next “rumble” between the two groups, while Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) wishes to leave the street violence of their city behind her. When Tony and Maria lock eyes for the first time at a school dance, they have an immediate connection and instantly plan to run away together, if the ties to their neighborhood don’t weigh them down first.

Dazzling Cinematography

Opening with a dazzling continuous crane shot, which glides over rubble and behind wrecking balls before landing on an underground door, West Side Story reminds us early and often that we’re in the hands of one of the medium’s most gifted visual storytellers. With longtime collaborator Janusz Kamiński, whose work here should win him his third Oscar for best cinematography, Spielberg lends fresh eyes to a world that was already vibrant to begin with.

Too often, movie musicals have a glossy sheen to them that comes across as phony; this summer’s disappointing In the Heights and the much, much worse Dear Evan Hansen are two examples from this year alone. There’s not an uninspired shot in all of West Side Story, and there are quite a few, like the bird’s-eye view of the long-cast shadows from the Sharks and Jets converging in a salt warehouse, that will take your breath away.

The iconic musical numbers, re-arranged this time by composer David Newman, are handled with the level of care and reverence that the genius team of Sondheim and Bernstein deserve. Spielberg certainly knows not to mess with a good thing, sticking with all of the classics from the original and not adding any new songs.

Viewers who may be more reticent to musical fare may be surprised just how smooth the transitions from dialogue to musical numbers are. This isn’t a musical where the action stops so a character or two can belt one out. This is a world in which story and song move in tandem with one another. The choreography is just as fluid and propulsive, pairing the rhythm of the music with body movements in jaw-dropping synchrony.

Missing Sparks?

If there’s a letdown, it’s not in the performances, but in the lack of a spark between some of the actors. Elgort and Zegler obviously have the heavy lifting here, as much of the emotional drive in the story hinges on the spontaneous romance between their characters. They both have the vocal chops and the steps, but when it comes to their chemistry, it falls short. Still, they’re sensible picks for the roles, and other members of the cast, like Ariana DeBose as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, are doing excellent work outside of the central relationship.

West Side Story is a rich and magnificent achievement, a movie musical that will delight hardcore fans and newcomers one and the same.

New Movies Coming over the Next Few Weeks

Swinging to theaters on Dec. 16 is Spider-Man: No Way Home, the latest Marvel epic starring Tom Holland and Zendaya which finds the titular webslinger and mentor Doctor Strange tinkering with alternate realities within the multiverse.

Also playing only in theaters this weekend is Nightmare Alley, a neo-noir thriller starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett about an ambitious carny/con man who meets his match in a psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.

Coming to theaters and also to HBO Max on Dec. 22 is The Matrix Resurrections, the belated sci-fi sequel starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss which finds the characters of the original trilogy seemingly plugged back into The Matrix to fight a new enemy.

Playing only in theaters starting on Dec. 22 is Sing 2, an animated family comedy starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon about a theater owner who tries to persuade a reclusive rock star to join his new singing-based show.

Streaming on Netflix beginning Dec. 24 is Don’t Look Up, a satirical political comedy starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence about a pair of astronomers who set off on a media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy the Earth.

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